The classroom should be a consecrated place—a dedicated space for attending to ideas not normally addressed as ardently elsewhere. Strange, good, and serendipitous things happen there. Questions are newly formed, puzzlement gives way to intellectual pursuit, and insights arrive serendipitously. On the other hand, even after earnest preparations, professors can be greeted with vacant stares, wandering eyes, stupefied silences, or irritatingly inept comments. We struggle to win, keep, and enrich our students’ attention.
The classroom the environment should be ripe for teaching and learning. (Neil Postman observed that one is not teaching if no one is learning.) This requires earnest preparation for the professor, but students also need to attend and respond rightly. Critical thinking is imperative for philosophy (my discipline) and does not happen automatically. Teachers can encourage critical thinking in several ways: by giving quizzes, showing appreciation for student’s apt comments, and even by letting them stew in their culpable ignorance. But there is another element changing the classroom and threatening its positive prospects: the laptop and similar portable Internet-connected devices. Academics have weighed the pros and cons of this situation, but let me offer some battle-scarred reflections.
I teach two different kinds of students at two institutions. I teach philosophy full-time at the graduate level at a theological seminary. Here most students can afford expensive technologies. I also teach as an affiliate faculty member at a large city college in downtown
One of these undergraduates stands out. A young
My graduate students are a different story. About ten years ago, laptops began to appear in the classroom here and there. Those busily typing seldom looked at me or at other students or at their books. One student spent the entire semester gazing exclusively at her laptop. In recent years the percentage of laptop users surged to over fifty percent, and the classroom began to change radically in ways I had never before experienced. As Postman would have put it, the changes were ecological, not merely additive. That is, the very nature of the classroom was changing, not just a few isolated elements of it. The laptop users were often absorbed in their machines, and their activities often distracted others. I vainly tried to counter this threat of the absent presence by calling for “laptop down” interludes. When I came to a particularly important point, I would ask that all laptops be closed, so that the students could look up and listen more intently.
But matters worsened. Many students in my Ethics class were sending and receiving emails, shopping, and even checking their eHarmony accounts. This violated the conditions of the syllabus. So, I gave a fifteen-minute lecture (perhaps sermon) on the ethics of the classroom: We are here to learn together, to reflect on the texts, to pursue truth through rationality. We need to attend to each other, develop dialogue, and create a “truth zone.” Laptops threaten all of this.
This impassioned message did little good. My spies reported further infractions. I then drew up a short “covenant” for students to sign, stating that students would only use their laptops for taking notes. As I handed this out, a student publicly rebuked me for being so heavy-handed. We later reconciled, but this short-lived, one-man student insurrection deepened my resolve to do something serious about the creeping plague of digital distraction. (I have since gotten more ammunition from John Medina’s Brain Rules, which argues that our brains are simply not designed for multitasking, in the classroom or elsewhere.) I put the following statement (somewhat edited) in my syllabi the next term, where it has remained in all my subsequent courses.
No laptops are allowed in the classroom. While many students will use them responsibly, many will disappear behind the screens. For this reason, I am banning them from the classroom. The classroom needs to be a zone for knowledge and inspiration. Knowledge needs students and students need knowledge. We need to breathe ideas together without the distraction of alien mediation. Therefore, please print out the class notes for the day and be ready to take notes and discuss the material face-to-face, voice-to-voice, soul-to-soul.
The break was now complete. I would no longer compete with those thin, powerful, and distracting devices. Many students had abided by the rules and only typed class notes. But even then, something was lost in the classroom.
My ban did, however, foreclose some good possibilities. Students would sometimes search on line for items that were pertinent to class. When I mentioned that a Hindu priest had opened a session of congress in prayer for the first time recently, a student asked, “What exactly did he pray?” I gave a rather inadequate summary. Then another student replied, “I found it. May I read it?” He did, and it contributed to our discussion as we analyzed the theology of the prayer. Those kinds of episodes enriched our environment; but they were all too rare. Nor could they offset the significant losses caused by digital diversions. However, if a disabled student needed a laptop to compensate for a sensory difficulty, I would gladly allow for that.
It has been three years since I banned laptops. No complaints have appeared on the anonymous student evaluations. Students say they are less distracted and more focused in class. I note that without laptops they are more engaged with both me and other students. I believe that my step backward into the pre-laptop era was really a step forward into a better classroom. Consider joining me.
- Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and Affiliate Faculty in Philosophy at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He is the author of The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997).